Ah, Detroit. This morning, saddened by the bleak news of bankruptcy and shame, I pulled from the shelf my worn copy of a book of Detroit legends and re-read my favorite of all, the story of the Loup Garou.
French 17th century settlers on the shores of Lake St. Clair in the area that is now Grosse Pointe (Canada at the time), believed in a very French werewolf called the Loup Garou, a creature with the body of a man, head of a wolf, long tail and hideous claws and fangs. The Loup Garou came out of the forest to steal children, especially daughters, of course, but he also had a fondness for pinching people's clothing and then modeling the latest fashions from afar.
"In his hand he held a cane, which he twisted in a nonchalant manner. He was a fair caricature of a Parisian dandy."
Wouldn't you know.
The moral of the story is a little obscure for people of non-Gallic heritage. The one time the settlers came close to trapping the monster by cornering him on a boulder in the lake, he summoned a giant catfish and disappeared into its gaping mouth. My book of legends concludes: "To this day, no Canadian will eat catfish."
So, horror, fashion and gastronomy, all in one legend. Somehow that's Detroit for me -- a city with a heritage ancient by North American standards, put where it is for reasons that far pre-date the auto industry, a survivor of plagues, fires and ravages that modern man cannot even imagine, but always with style.
The modern legend that I know to be absolutely untrue is that the current dismal fate of the city is driven entirely by the vicissitudes of the auto industry. What that ignores is that during the boom cycles of the industry, Detroit has boomed with the best of them -- just not in Detroit. If you had visited the suburban ring in Wayne, Washtenaw, Livingston, Oakland and Macomb Counties in the 1990s, you would have seen some of the nation's most affluent enclaves as well as huge expanses of solid middle-class settlement.
The auto industry began seriously decamping to the suburbs by the 1980s. But given the politics of the region and especially the racial overtones, the auto companies just never announced they were moving. They slipped their facilities out of town one by one, like Marx brothers dodging an unpaid hotel bill by walking in and out with multiple suits on their backs.
It was Detroit proper that was on its ass, and that began to happen immediately after the 1967 race riot, or uprising, as some people there still call it -- a cataclysm from which the city has never recovered. In the 1970s when I lived in downtown Detroit but often went to Oakland County to visit my parents, people out there verbally assaulted me for living in the city. They spoke with a bitterness I might have expected of Cuban exiles in Miami, and in fact they, like the Cubans, were people who had been pushed off their own turf by violence and fear. People don't take well to that, and they do not forget.
But I also understood the riot. When I was a police reporter there, Detroit was already really a black city, but the police force was still more than 90 percent white, and many of those cops, especially the younger ones, lived way outside the city in the boondocks. I covered police shooting after police shooting. A young black male motorist stopped for a bad taillight almost had to hold his breath and drop to his knees to avoid getting shot by the cops.
Finally I felt I saw the underlying pattern. It wasn't that those young white hick-town cops set out at the beginning of every watch wanting to shoot somebody. It was more that they were culturally and viscerally terrified of young black men, couldn't read them at all to know which ones were trouble and which ones were just black, and whenever they were in doubt they felt they had a license to shoot. The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin parallels today are chilling. Show me one instance in the ancient history of humankind where that kind of violent oppression has not eventually collapsed into chaos. It's no way to run a city.
And yet now, even in the midst of financial ruin, Detroit manages to have incredible flair. It draws young artists and creative people from all over the world. The midtown area of Detroit is so hot you can't find an apartment. The Greektown/riverfront area booms.
It's fine to say, "Who cares for flair if you're bankrupt?" But all that shows is that you're not French. Detroit's been there for more than three centuries. It's not going to jump in a catfish's mouth and disappear. The monster does that.